My personal butler Ankit looked at me with consternation. We were standing in my luxurious suite’s spacious walk-in wardrobe and most of the shelves and racks were empty. “May I unpack for you? How should I stock your bar – with French champagne or gin? Would you like one litre? Would you care to choose a pillow from our pillow menu? And from our toiletries range would you prefer Ferragamo or Bulgari? Let me run you a bath, a bath sprinkled with rose petals!” he offers as he shows me the spacious suite. But such indulgences had to wait – there was too much to explore.
Minutes earlier at Singapore’s cruise ship terminal, I’d followed a procession of people immaculately dressed wearing panama hats and crisp linens walking determinedly, chests puffed, chins high, pulling a multitude of designer suitcases. The woman in front was juggling six, one of which she informed us was for her formal wear.
Contrast that to how I looked, wearing pants that were quite crumpled, long since succumbing to the tropical humidity and my hat, which had gone quite floppy. And yet as soon as I stepped on board the Silver Shadow and was presented with a slender flute of pink champagne, I too became enveloped in a state of luxury that was altogether too cushy. Whisked down corridors I was promptly deposited in my generously proportioned balcony suite with refined elegant interiors enhanced by the scent of flowers. The sitting area had a desk with writing paper with my name embossed in gold lettering, on the coffee table was a slender pink orchid, the mini bar was well stocked, the bed positively sleep inducing and the marble en-suite spacious with double wash basins, a shower and full-sized bath.
The Silver Shadow has a passenger to staff ratio of 382 to 302 and is a mid-sized ship with an informal clubby ambience and intuitive personalised service that I’ve not experienced before. The bartender remembered my order and would ask as I entered the bar, “Can I mix a Silver Spirit cocktail for you?”
At dining venues I was escorted to my preferred table and my housekeeper always thought of ways to please; a ribbon tied around my bag, leaving a pretty bookmark or extra chocolates.
Onboard activities were varied, the lectures informative and I enjoyed spending time in the library reading as the sea drifted by. The fitness centre is well equipped and the spa provides heavenly indulgences. Each evening there was a vocalist and pianist and occasional shows with subdued razzamatazz.
Lavishly decorated The Restaurant offers French influenced cuisine with passengers dressed up to the nines on formal nights. On the first night I received an invitation to join the Staff Captain and couples from Norway, the US and Switzerland who were good company, well travelled and steadfastly loyal, cruising several times each year with Silversea. The drawcard for them was the onboard experience, especially dining. With an extensive menu, it was hard to narrow down on choices, even for those on special diets.
My meal was exceptional; a salad entrée, creamy mushroom soup, handmade pumpkin ravioli and did I prefer a chocolate soufflé with hazelnut ganache followed by petit fours and ginger tea? Absolutely! Other dining venues included Le Champagne – the only Relais and Châteaux restaurant at sea – while La Terrazza offers buffet breakfast and lunch and Italian cuisine for dinner.
The informal Grill on the pool deck has hot rocks to grill your own seafood or prime cuts. It was here that I was happiest, dining under the stars with a delicious baked potato topped with sour cream and eggplant ratatouille, often joined by Meg and Bill who owned a pastoral station in the Pilbara.
High Tea was a highlight, with an amazing selection of cakes, biscuits, sandwiches and scones to choose from. And the coffee, rising before anyone else for a few shots of Italian espresso in the Observation Lounge as the sun came up over the horizon, was magic.
While many guests preferred to dine on board, for me the cruise presented a wonderful opportunity to experience South East Asian cuisine in all of the destinations visited.
We began and ended our cruise in Singapore, with stops in Borneo, Vietnam and Thailand. In Borneo I saw proboscis monkeys and orangutans, went shooting through the rapids in a wooden longboat, visited a traditional longhouse, hiked through dense tropical rainforests, and visited Kampong Ayer in Brunei, home to the seafaring Bajau and the world’s largest overwater community.
In the Malaysian state of Sabah, I visited Kota Kinabalu with its lively waterfront promenade where weatherworn fishermen sell the day’s catch and in the evening, hawker stalls cook up a feast of noodles and seafood in giant woks. Our course was then set northwards – we bound for Vietnam.
Travelling upstream along the sinuous Saigon River, we passed a steady stream of freighters before arriving in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, just a stone’s throw from Dong Khoi Street, the main thoroughfare.
Vietnam’s largest city is a powerhouse, a city that never sleeps, where wealth flashes by in black Mercedes, men sport American-style shades, and slender women wear elegant ao dais. Boulevards are lined with tamarind, banyan and flowering flame trees and much of the charming Art Deco and French colonial architecture still remains.
Dong Khoi, formerly known as Rue Catinat, is perhaps the most beautiful street in South East Asia, flanked by historic grand hotels and civic buildings including the ornate Saigon Opera House, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel. The Continental and Majestic Hotels formed the backdrop for Graham Greene’s classic novel The Quiet American set during Vietnam’s war of independence from France, and nearby the Rex Hotel was where journalists decamped during the Vietnam War.
Food is everywhere with street stalls offering local favourites including pho – a large fragrant steaming bowl of noodle soup, bún thit nuóng made of cold vermicelli noodles with herbs, pork and salad, and bánh xèo, a crispy fried pancake. Cafes and restaurants offer a wealth of culinary experiences from French and Italian to Asian cuisine.
Most places of interest are contained within the city centre – known as Districts 1 and 3 – with the War Remnants museum, Reunification Palace and pagodas full of statues and wafts of burning incense close enough to discover on foot. And while there are a staggering number of stalls at Ben Thanh Market brimming with food and souvenirs, along Le Loi are boutiques, restaurants, cafes with thick, strong coffee and quality tailors. Walking along, I paused here to buy plump dragon fruit and custard apples, adding them to the treats I’d bought from the market including packets of coconut candy.
And it was here that I had a Cinderella moment. For the second formal night, when it was obvious that my wardrobe wasn’t up to the task, I wore PJs and had room service instead. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. In Vietnam, custom made clothing is achievable super fast, the silk fabrics are exquisite, and I was in need of something splendid for our final formal night.
From the upper deck, as the orange and pink tropical sky turned to night, I clung onto a martini to enhance the effect as we headed downstream to continue our journey across the South China Sea, bound for Bangkok. Wearing an elegant deep red and black silk ao dais, I entered The Restaurant and before night’s end we toasted to further culinary delights ahead.
When the journey came to an end in Singapore, I grabbed my bag and headed to Little India for a Dosa at the Mavalli Tiffin Room. My culinary adventure was not over yet. •
Photography by Petra O’Neill.
Singapore Airlines flies to Singapore and beyond, a convenient gateway city for exploring South East Asia. 131-011; singaporeair.com
Where to stay
While Singapore has many excellent hotels, the Ritz-Carlton Millenia and Sofitel So are fabulous and close by the cruise ship terminal. ritzcarlton.com/singapore; sofitel-so-singapore.com
Where to eat
Outdoor hawker stalls provide an excellent introduction to South East Asian cuisine. Singapore and Bangkok are culinary paradises while Kota Kinabalu is one of Malaysia’s most ethnically diverse cities, reflected in the variety of cuisines available. Ho Chi Minh City is famous for its Pho with popular chains, Pho24 and Pho 2000 providing a more standardised version, though you can’t beat family-run restaurants
and street stalls.
Check to see if you require a visa for the countries visited. Silversea conveniently arranged for necessary visas to be processed on board for Brunei and Vietnam. Silversea offers a choice of itineraries to South East Asia including Ho Chi Minh City. 1300-306-872; silversea.com